In 1827 the world of music mourned the death of Ludwig van Beethoven. His funeral was attended by an estimated twenty thousand people and included many dignitaries and leading composers.
Among the throngs of people who came to pay their respects, one group came forward with a strange request. These men believed in Phrenology, the study of the shape of the skull in the belief it could give clues to a person’s intelligence and various attributes.
While it was easy to get hold of the skulls of executed criminals and of the poor who died in hospitals, what these men really wanted was the skull of a genius to see where this gift came from.
It perhaps comes as no surprise that this request was refused, but it was certainly not the first time these phrenologists tried to get hold of a composer’s skull.
In 1809, as Napoleon’s troops approached Vienna, Joseph Haydn died and a simple funeral was hastily arranged. Haydn’s patron, Prince Nikolaus Esterhazy II, pledged to transfer his remains to the family seat when the wars ended. However, unknown to the Prince, his former secretary Joseph Carl Rosenbaum had agreed to an arrangement with local prison governor Johann Nepomuk Peter (an amateur phrenologist) to dig up Haydn’s corpse and remove the head.
Having cleaned the skull, Peter declared that the “bump of music” in Haydn’s skull was fully developed and was so proud of his possession that he kept it in a custom made box. It was not until 11 years later, in 1820, that Prince Nikolaus decided to dig up Haydn’s remains and transfer them to a specially built tomb, and that’s when they discovered the head was missing.
It did not take long for the Prince to discover the culprits were Rosenbaum and Peter and sent his soldiers round to find the skull. Peter had by then given the skull to Rosenbaum, and when the soldiers came round he hid it in the straw of the bed and his wife lay on it pretending to be menstruating. The soldiers gave up and came back empty handed. After a few threats Rosenbaum got hold of another skull and gave it to Prince, but tests revealed it to be that of a 20 year old man. Rosenbaum found another skull, of a much older man, and this was accepted as genuine and was buried with Haydn’s body.
Haydn’s real skull was kept with Rosenbaum, who left it for Peter in his will. Peter’s will stated that the skull should then be given to the Vienna Conservatory of Music, but his wife gave it as a gift to her doctor, who gave it to the Austrian Institute of Pathology and Anatomy. There was a lot of arguments and court cases involved as to who should own the skull (no consulted the Esterhazy family), but it finally stayed with the Society of Music in Vienna where it was kept in a glass case on top of the piano.
In 1932 Prince Paul Esterhazy decided to build a new marble tomb for Haydn, and he petitioned for the skull to be returned so it could be buried with the rest of Haydn. Unfortunately, WWII and the cold war that followed created further complications.
It was not until 1954 that the skull was finally returned and in a grand ceremony full of music, Haydn’s body and skull were finally laid to rest in Eisenstadt, the seat of the Esterhazy family. It was the first time in nearly a century and a half that the body and head of the great composer were together again.
However, no one knew what to do with the existing skull in Haydn’s grave, and it was allowed to stay. His tomb now contains a body and two heads, at least one of which we know to be Haydn.